SUNDERLAND’S supporters came to the Stadium of Light expecting to watch a midfielder they had never seen before. On a day of unexpected bonuses, they saw two.
It was surprising that after half a week of apparently impressive training Alfred N’Diaye’s debut was restricted to just six minutes. It may or may not have been characteristic Martin O’Neill caution, but with hindsight Sunderland’s supporters will be glad he erred on the side of safety. In holding back one new player, he may have found another in David Vaughan.
According to his terrace song, N’Diaye has come from Bursaspor to hear the Roker Roar. They certainly made sure he did.
The enthusiasm which greeted the Frenchman’s introduction was as if Sunderland had just signed Lionel Messi, and once on, he gave his new fans plenty to get excited about. His first touch in English football was a shot which flew narrowly wide, and a minute later he thundered into a tackle on Guy Demel which had them clearing their throats again.
But on a day of positives for the Black Cats, his was not the most encouraging. That came from his polar opposite.
N’Diaye is a beast of a man, the like of which Sunderland have not had since the forgettable days of Christian Bassila. Judging by O’Neill’s pre-match comments that he needs to work on his technique, he is the kind of muscular ball-winner who would look more at home in a Sam Allardyce team.
If N’Diaye is the type of player who was all the rage when O’Neill and Allardyce played in England’s top-flight, Vaughan is the kind of midfielder fashionable today.
Five foot five inches tall, the softly-spoken Welshman is a ball-lover, not a fighter – a player who likes to hold his station and keep things neat and tidy.
His inoffensive approach has not found much favour with O’Neill this season, preferring converted right-winger Sebastian Larsson in that role. Vaughan’s first Premier League start this season owed much to Lee Cattermole’s injury, Jack Colback and Craig Gardner’s deployment at full-back, and presumably O’Neill’s reservations about throwing N’Diaye in at the deep end.
But when O’Neill picks his team for tomorrow’s FA Cup third round replay against Bolton Wanderers – with N’Diaye ineligible – he may feel he has no choice but to pick Vaughan. The man who scored Sunderland’s first goal under O’Neill only to quickly fall from view was right on his game against a very poor West Ham United. That it is so different from N’Diaye’s might mean he at last has an important part to play this season.
Perhaps he took confidence from coming so close to scoring in the third minute, shooting just past the post after John O’Shea released Stéphane Sessègnon down the left.
All Sunderland’s players looked as though they had been injected with a big dose of confidence before the team’s best performance this season.
As his introduction showed, Vaughan was not content simply to let the game go on around him as he sometimes can, but imposed himself in all areas of the field. With the Three Amigos in front of him – Sessègnon, Adam Johnson and James McClean – on form and West Ham carrying all the menace of a toothless poodle, and Sunderland were onto a winner.
Sessègnon, Johnson and McClean made the scoresheet and it was a pity an offside flag meant Steven Fletcher’s gorgeous 63rd-minute chip did not. By the end Sunderland’s fans were even able to taunt Kevin Nolan. “The chicken is dead!” they sang when his miss spared them another sight of the former Newcastle United captain’s cheesy goal celebration. Nolan could not help but smirk at terracing resembling a 1980s disco when the DJ put the Birdie Song on.
O’Neill is rightly pushing ahead with plans to strengthen his squad – after centre-back Kader Mangane’s seemingly imminent arrival he can turn his attentions to Swansea City striker Danny Graham – but the improvements in players he had apparently written off will make life much easier.
Titus Bramble looked solid and it will have done him good to get another 90 minutes under his belt against such feeble opposition. When West Ham did have chances as Sunderland dropped their guard, Simon Mignolet jealously guarded his clean sheet. If the likes of Vaughan and the previous week Connor Wickham are proving O’Neill wrong, those he has shown faith in are proving him right.
Sessègnon looked like the player so devastating last season, Jack Colback’s tigerish display at left-back saw off Cole and Matt Jarvis to make light of Danny Rose’s absence, and Larsson’s fantastic goal – rounding off a move started by Vaughan’s sweeping pass – visibly lifted someone who weeks earlier was contemplating going a whole season without scoring.
For Vaughan it was just one game, for the team it built on the highlights of their Christmas period. At one of the North East’s Premier League clubs at least there is suddenly cause for optimism.